Monthly Archives: February 2014

Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

As one of St Paul’s Collegiate Church’s most important promoters and benefactors, Franceso Catania has added some amazing pieces to the Wignacourt Museum’s collection. Outlining his importance is a new book that will be launched tonight.

Bust of Notary Francesco Catania

Bust of Notary Francesco Catania

Notary, scholar and devoted collector of works of art and archaeology. Those three adjectives are probably best to describe the late Notary Francesco Catania, who was one of the St Paul’s Collegiate Church’s most noteworthy benefactors.

In his will, in fact, Notary Catania instituted St Paul’s Church as his universal heir, leaving behind an artistic legacy that makes up around a third of all the items exhibited. These include paintings, drawings and watercolours, engravings, maps, Phoenician and Roman pottery, furniture, coins and medals, rare Melitensia books, and sketchbooks and drawings produced by the Notary himself.

His collection gave the Wignacourt some of its most prized possessions, including artworks by Mattia Preti, Antoine Favray and Francesco Zahra; a manuscript from 1833 signed by the Maltese priest, Don Felice Cutajar; and a coin collection that virtually encompasses all of ‘Malta’s Time History’. Even so, this is just a fraction of Catania’s incredible collection as a seven day auction by the St Paul’s Church saw more than 60 per cent of the collection being sold off to other collectors.

Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine the Wignacourt’s collection without Catania’s incredible contribution – one that has made many pieces of invaluable art and archaeology available for the general public to see.

To honour this incredible deed and the legacy that has been left behind, Mgr John Azzopardi, the Wignacourt Museum’s own chief curator, has edited a collection of essays by Emmanuel Azzopardi, Caroline Bartoli, Prof. Alain Blondy, Sarah M. Borg, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, Joseph Galea Naudi, Dr Albert Ganado, Dr Anthony Pace, Bernardine Scicluna, Dr Conrad Thake and Mgr John Azzopardi himself on the matter.

The results of this, in book form, will be launched tonight, 25 February 2014, at the Wignacourt Museum.

To find out more about Notary Catania (1872-1960) and his collections at the Wignacourt Museum or about the Wignacourt Museum itself, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at

The Popes at the Wignacourt: Pope John Paul II

Loved unanimously by both Roman Catholics and practitioners of other faiths, Pope John Paul II was one of the most celebrated popes to-date. So much so, that his visit to Malta in 1990 is an event still etched in many people’s memory.

For thousands of years, Christians were told that pilgrimage was a great way to purify the soul, and for thousands of years, they flocked to many holy sites around Europe and the Middle East to experience something sacred and touched by God. But Pope John Paul II’s willingness to leave Vatican City and travel around the globe to meet his flock meant that the common folk, for the first time in history, could come face to face with the representative of Christ on Earth.

That, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons why Pope John Paul II is one of history’s most beloved Popes. His visit to Malta in 1990 – the first official papal visit to Malta by an ordained Pope – caused a frenzy of excitement and deep piety amongst one of the earliest and proudest Roman Catholic nations in Europe.

During his visit, Pope John Paul II pilgrimaged to some of Malta’s holiest sites, including Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary in Gozo, where he placed a halo of golden stars around the head of the Virgin Mary painted in 1619 by Amadeo Perugino; and St Paul’s Islands, where a statue of Christ by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi was sunk to commemorate the occasion.



On 27 May 1990, Pope John Paul II also visited St Paul’s Grotto, and the episode remains one of the Wignacourt Museum’s proudest moments. On this day, John Paul II blessed the Grotto and the statue of St Paul that was donated by Grand Master Pinto in 1748. He is also known to have asked to spend a few minutes alone in silence to pray where St Paul himself had once prayed. This visit is remembered at the Wignacourt by the series of pictures and plaques that adorn the chiselled walls that lead from the Wignacourt to the Grotto.



Although many people don’t know it, John Paul II actually visited Malta again just four months later, in September 1990, when he was en route to Africa. The visit was short however, and he never left the airport. The next time Pope John Paul II returned to Malta was 11 years later to beatify Dun Gorg Preca (now San Gorg Preca), Nazju Falzon and Sister Maria Adeodata Pisani. This, unfortunately, was Pope John Paul II’s final visit to the Maltese islands, as he passed away on 2 April 2005.

Pope John Paul II at St Paul's Grotto

Pope John Paul II at St Paul’s Grotto

His successor, Pope Benedict XIV would also make the journey to visit the holy site of St Paul’s Grotto. But that’s a story for another time.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the St Paul’s Grotto, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at

A History of the Wignacourt: Part IV

Artistic and architectural progress: this is the Wignacourt and its surroundings’ story during the second half of the 17th century.

In 1653, a business-savvy woman by the name of Cosmana Navarra funded the building of a larger parish church right opposite the Wignacourt Museum. The design of this new church was left in the able hands of the architect Francesco Buonamici, but the plans had to be handed over to Capomastri Lorenzo Gafà and Pawluccju Formosa, as on 16th April 1664 Buonamici headed back to Rome.

Although the Wignacourt with the adjoining St Paul’s Grotto and the parish church of Rabat have been two completely separate entities since 1607, their history has always remained intertwined. A portrait, as well as Cosmana Navarra’s death mask, in fact, can still be found at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat. Navarra’s project was colossal at the time, but it turned out to be the beginning of a boom in artistic and architectural projects in or around the area of the Wignacourt.  In fact, in the same year that Buoanimici left for Rome, the renowned Dutch engraver Wilhelm Shellinks, who was on a trip funded by the lawyer Laurens van der Hem, visited Malta. His job while on this journey was to record on paper the places he visited, and the sacred mound and environs of the Grotto were featured in some of his work. 

On 18th January 1665, the Wignacourt as we know it today was slowly coming together. St Publius’s church, which is found atop the Grotto of St Paul, was being enlarged and lengthened to bring it in-line with the new façade. And as all this was happening, the Chaplains who lived at the Wignacourt registered in the acts of Notary Nicola Arregritto that in agreement with Giuseppe Iguanez and his son Mario, they were to acquire part of the catacombs of St Paul.

Statue of St Paul by Melchiorre Cafà

Statue of St Paul by Melchiorre Cafà

For over a decade after that, a whole range of artists added their touch to the Grotto and the adjoining complexes, including the famous baroque sculptor Melchiorre Cafà who was commissioned to sculpt a marble statue of St Paul. Although Cafà worked on the statue for two years (1666-1668) he never completed the work, and Ercole Ferrata took over upon Cafà’s death in 1668 and finished it in the same year.

By 1680, the Grotto had become such an integral part of the Church and the Order of the Knights’ happenings, that before Grandmaster Carafa attended his own installation ceremony (which took place in Mdina on 29th June 1680), he attended mass at St Paul’s Grotto, once again showcasing the power of the Knights and their close affiliation with genuine holy sites and the Church.

As the Grotto’s importance grew, however, so did its premises, and on 1st September 1680 the site of the college adjoining the Grotto was extended and an extra portion of land was bought. In 1683 – the same year the Rabat parish church was completed – Lorenzo Gafà was commissioned to remodel the passage leading from the college to the Grotto.

The Coat of Arms of Grandmaster Carafa on the  façade of Auberge D'Italie, Valletta. (Source:

The Coat of Arms of Grandmaster Carafa on the façade of Auberge D’Italie, Valletta. (Source:

These alterations and renovations never ceased, and as the 17th century turned to the 18th, the Wignacourt would keep on growing in both size and importance. But that’s a whole other story waiting to be told…

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum, its adjoining complexes and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at


The Popes At the Wignacourt: Pope Alexander VII

As one of the holiest sites in Christian Europe, St Paul’s Grotto has attracted some truly noteworthy visitors, including the former Inquisitor of Malta turned Pope, Fabio Chigi.

By the 1600s, St Paul’s Grotto had become a renowned holy site in Christendom; its reputation cemented by the thousands of pilgrims flocking to it from all over Europe. But while many people nowadays know about Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s visits to the Grotto, few know that the Inquisitor of Malta Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII, had also visited this saintly place.

The Spanish Inquisition (source:

The Spanish Inquisition (source:

Having its roots in 12th-century France, the Inquisition was an ecclesiastical judicial system set up to rid Christendom of the Cathars, whose ideology clashed with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the Inquisition grew to become a universal force, which persecuted anyone who was deemed to be a heretic, including people who were believed to practice witchcraft and those whose allegiance was thought to be with the devil.

Malta – its roots deep in the Roman Catholic faith and feudalised to the Order of St John – was not spared the dark days of the Holy Inquisition and Fabio Chigi is one of the most infamous members of the Maltese branch of this Holy Office. In fact, as the Inquisitor of Malta, Chigi was one of the most powerful and respected men on the island, and his role at St Paul’s Grotto was more than that of a simple visitor.

Chigi was renowned for the Masses he celebrated in the Grotto, and many important people attended to hear his homilies – including a famous German mathematician and the librarian of the Vatican. Nevertheless, while according to documents and letters Chigi was very critical of the Grotto, in a letter addressed to his uncle dated 8th February 1636, Chigi also believed the Grotto to have medicinal properties.

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source:

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source:

In fact, Chigi often had very different ideas about the Grotto, such as a theory that the humidity which afflicted the place was not coincidental but rather the consequence of a well found underneath the Grotto. This, was later actually proven to be true.

After serving as the Inquisitor of Malta, Fabio Chigi went on to become Pope in 1655 and served as such until his death in 1667. It would be another 400 years before another Pope or Pope-to-be visited the holy site, and Chigi’s association with the Grotto definitely helped boost St Paul’s Grotto’s reputation.

Chigi’s role was so important on the Maltese isles that copies of an original portrait were created, one of which can still be seen at the Wignacourt. It has been part of the body of the original collection of artwork for centuries.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum, its adjoining complexes and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at